Friday, March 20, 2009

These Are Mine, But You Can Have Some

I made scones last night. I know it's Lent. Shut up. I didn't want the buttermilk to go bad before I had a chance to use it.

Anyhoo, I took a recipe and changed it enough that I think it's fair to call it my own now. I mimicked the technique for the biscuits I blogged about recently. The scones are the best I've ever made. Ickie loved them.

Watoosa's Scones

2 c flour
1/4 c sugar
1 tsp
baking powder
1/4 tsp
baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
optional: 1/4 to 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 stick
unsalted butter, cold & cut into pieces
2/3 c buttermilk, plus a bit more if needed
optional: currants or dried cranberries
egg wash: 1 large egg beaten with 1 tbsp milk

Whisk together dry ingredients. Cut butter into dry ingredients with a pastry cutter until butter is the size of small peas. Put flour mixture in fridge to chill for 10 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with
parchment paper.

Add buttermilk to flour mixture, mixing just until moist (drizzle in a bit more if you want moister dough). Turn out onto a well-floured surface, and knead only a few times. Pat into a rectangle; fold over into thirds as you would a letter. Repeat patting and folding twice. Pat or roll into a circle (about 7-8 inches in diameter) and cut into 6 pie pieces.

Brush with egg wash. Sprinkle with granulated sugar. Bake at 400 degrees 15-20 minutes until tops brown. Make some tea. Enjoy scones with jam and cream or just plain, hot out of the oven.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Lyrical Baby

Ickie and I are fans of Candlewick Press. They put out unique children's books, such as A Visitor for Bear, which we gave to our niece last year. The hospital where Ben was born gave us several children's books, and one of them, also by Candlewick Press, is Here's a Little Poem, which we've enjoyed reading to Ben on recent evenings. This collection features sweet, quirky poems by Langston Hughes, Robert Louis Stevenson, and A.A. Milne as well as other less famous poets. I especially love the dreamy illustrations for the bedtime poems. Here is my current favorite:

Manhattan Lullaby

by Norma Farber

Lulled by rumble, babble beep,
let these little children sleep;
let these city girls and boys
dream a music in the noise,
hear a tune their city plucks
up from buses, up from trucks
up from engines wailing fire!
up ten stories high, and higher,
up from hammers, rivets, drills,
up tall buildings, over sills,
up where city children sleep,
lulled by rumble, babble, beep.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Best Biscuits

When it's below zero and blizzarding (don't laugh, we've had plenty of that this year), I need comfort food. It's not just to make me feel better about being stuck indoors; I need calories for survival. Bring on the fat and bring on the biscuits! Any good Southerner will tell you that the best comfort food is her grandmother's biscuits, but a true southern grandma's biscuit methods are shrouded in mystery. She can toss in flour, scoop up lard with her fingers at random, and pour in buttermilk without measuring. Grandma cannot convey how this heap of dough transforms into fluffy, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth divinity, and my mom has complained that when she does the same the results are bland, white rocks.

My dear grandma hasn't baked her biscuits in years, but I still remember when she came to take care of us when I was in sixth grade while my parents were away. When we got home from school in the afternoon she had a full supper of biscuits, meat, and veg hot and waiting. I never hope to recreate her masterpieces, but I did recreate a reasonable facsimile by following this recipe from Southern Living. I substituted all-purpose flour with baking powder and salt, but otherwise I followed the folding directions precisely. Scarfing one down hot out of the oven, Ickie pronounced them the best he's ever had.

Scarred for Life

On a recent visit, my friend JW recommended Blindness by Jose Saramago. Saramago won a Nobel Prize for this novel, and although it's an impressive achievement, it's as desperate as anything you can imagine.

A sudden and unexplained epidemic of white blindness infects the population. The story follows the small group who are the first to go blind and are interned in a dilapidated mental asylum. Like many of the epidemic/apocalyptic stories I've read lately, this one explores human nature, be it compassionate or degenerate. Saramago's run-on sentences, minimal punctuation (dialogue jumbles together), and unnamed characters convey well the chaos and confusion of the epidemic.

Like other stories in this vein, survival depends on humanity's basest needs: the search for food, shelter, companionship, and a functioning toilet. (I don't mean to be flippant here; let's just say I have a fresh appreciation for plumbing.) Yet Blindness is not utterly without hope. There are many horrors, but some characters act selflessly, wisely, and honorably.

I was worried before beginning the novel that Saramago would have an obvious agenda or message, but his story is richly enigmatic. Near the end of the novel, two of the main characters make a brief and eloquent suggestion of what the blindness might symbolize, but the reader is left to her own theories. The conclusion snuck up on me: suddenly I turned a page to discover I was at the close, and even after all the horror, this lovely, warm, vague emotion washed over me. I didn't end with any clear insight, I simply experienced beautifully written art.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Befuddled at the Close

I believe endings are hard to write. You can have a great story idea, even an entire excellent novel, but when things come to the end it gets tricky. I often prefer stories that are a bit open-ended, so as to spur continuing thought and debate, as opposed to stories where all the ends tie up neatly and seem a bit forced. But sometimes an ending is just odd. In this case I'm referring to the finale of Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud. Stroud also wrote The Bartimeaus Trilogy; he writes Heroes like Bartimeaus: it's unique, it's witty and dark, and Stroud can really DO creepy. The scene in Westminster Abbey in the second Bartimeaus book is one of the eeriest scenes I've ever read.

Stroud does some good things in Heroes of the Valley. He creates a captivating mythology in an isolated valley reminiscent of medieval Scandinavia. The myths frame every chapter and are incorporated into the story well. There are tunneling-zombie-troll monsters that make my hair stand on end. As soon as the reader is convinced of the truth of these old tales, Stroud introduces cause for doubt, so the reader can hardly predict what will happen next. The characters are interesting yet flawed (as in Bartimeaus, the heroine is far more likable than the hero). But the ending, well, it was weird. I did not like it. I didn't hate it, I just didn't get it at all. It wasn't so much a weak conclusion as a strange one. I can't seem to put into words why it's so problematic. Nevertheless, the book was worth reading.